April 24th's New York Times featured a front page (below the fold) picture (and story) of hotels.nl's advertising on the side of sheep, bedecked with advertising blankets rented to hotels.nl for the price of one euro, per day, per sheep. It is heralded by the reporter as a wonderful example of low tech advertising, which it is. It is also a great example of generating PR from a clever idea which created media carry which they could never have achieved. Even if the below the crease front page of the NYT was for sale the way the Financial Time's is, I doubt if hotel.nl could afford it. I'm sure the Times would cost more than the $144 Euros a day they spend on their flock of 144 grass munching billboards. I must admit that my mind reels at the potential extensions, both on the sheep and across other beasts. Should advertising on Dolly's clones be more expensive, for her progeny are the Tiger Woods of the sheep world? Shouldn't horses be more expensive for they are large format, and more elevated thereby likely to reach more eyeballs; or are cows the premium space because they slower moving and allow for a more complete brand impression? I can't wait to see the pricing schedule for mammalian advertising, and the CPH (Cost Per Hoof). Interestingly, if you link this article with another in The Times about De Tijd, a Belgian financial newspaper is just is launching a $400 eInk reader later this year which will be able to download everything from newspapers to books, the sheep will eventually have active billboards for sale too, once ruggedized ePaper is available. The serious part, to me, is not the somewhat facetious speculations into the potential extensions, but what is driving the CEO of nl.hotels and many others to search for non-traditional means to reach us? Underlying this need are at least two powerful trends: first, there is an expansion of the means and mode of the production and consumption of all information. I have argued (see my blog on the Dematuring of the TMT Cluster) that information's supply and consumption have changed more in the past ten years than any factor in the global economy - more than food, clothing, healthcare, anything.
Given the concomitant plethora of information options for consumers, smart firms seek novelty of "location," such as the sheep. They seek to splice their message (or icon brand) into a highly emotional and continuous viewing event, as is done when every square inch of a NASCAR vehicle is emblazoned with brands, with messages behind the catcher on baseball games, along the boards of a hockey game, and so on. Smart companies are reemphasizing the art of product placement, which is as old as the Vatican, (if look for it you can see the parts of the Vatican built by Medici popes for their 7-ball crest is well placed) and product placement built early TV (remember the Coke Hour?).
Smart companies are reinventing their messages, and the entire way they go to market. For example, Bain & Company, a competitor of my current employer, just started using podcasts to garner interest from recruits at competitive universities in India, and plan to expand the practice. They are reinventing their voice. Companies like Toyota, are inventing new original content to be delivered to cell phones as the primary medium, supported by other complimentary media, including the web. And Microsoft just bought Massive, a start up company that places ads in video games. I am sure that this is part of their ongoing strategy to try to extract value from means that are complimentary to selling software in boxes. They are betting, I think correctly, that technologies like Massive will help advertisers get to the coveted young male while they are gaming, and not watching TV. I am not advocating cluttering games with ads, just noting it will happen, just as it has in the "real" world.
The skeptic might say this is simply a passing fad, and the sheep thing is a nice trick, but a silly one, and nothing important for "real" and "serious" brands. I disagree, because we are seeing a fundamental change in the way media are consumed, and organizations that want to get their message out must be willing to embrace a significant amount of new thinking and a willingness to experiment. This will not be an easy thing to do. Many strong consumer products companies will have to simultaneously be clear in their branding, and execute with excellence, while also creating new venues to experiment and explore the emerging media consumption patterns that are in flux and will be for the foreseeable future.
Why do I think this will continue? Well, I believe that mammalian advertising, and the fundamental changes in media creation and consumption, is a symptom of a much wider phenomenon. The fundamental thing that is going on is that we are expanding our digital information description of reality, what I call a Turing Reality (after Alan Turing who simultaneously, and separately, invented, the idea that it was possible to create a logical machine that can mimic any other logical machine every invented, and almost all of our computing devices are Turing Machines, from a logical point of view. Alonso Church was the other genius).
Who cares? Well, it is the more complete digital description of reality that makes things like entertainment interactive. As entertainment becomes interactive, every engagement with the end customer can potentially be a selling or a buying event. Again, I'm not advocating putting ads in every corner of life, and selling all the time (I even believe that in the not to distant future some brands will be differentiated by the fact that they are not pitching you when you are in their environment, just as some banks are differentiating by promising you that a human being will answer the phone, not just an interactive voice robot). I'm just predicting that more and more of our marketspace reality will be populated with advertising, product placement, and other means to "get at" the consumer who is now rarely interested in watching commercials, or listening to them, unless they are great content on their own.
How big can this get? Well, in the US alone, we spend roughly $150 billion in advertising and $250 billion in promotional activities. With the exception of direct mail, and interactive ads on Yahoo! and Google, and a few others, most of that spending is "un-addressable" in that the advertiser or company doing the promotion has only a general idea of who saw the message and what they thought of it. Statistical sampling is the mechanism of closing the loop, and the individual customers are largely unknown. Most advertisers would like to be able to talk to people directly, not just a statistical average of a type of person. Why? Because when a person is identified, they are much ease to sell to, to provide service to, and to communicate with. Again, I'm not advocating, and every digital relationship should be reversible by the end customer, e.g. you should be able to stop any and all pitches at your discretion, and live by permission marketing as Seth Godin so clearly articulated it. Nevertheless, I believe that over the coming years more and more companies will be able to metabolize this interaction data and expand the reach of their message through non-traditional means. Put another way, most of the interesting action in advertising will be in new ways of messaging, product placement, new story forms, and who knows what. I sometimes wonder if people will begin to sell their skin as an advertising medium, and for a price be willing to tattoo a brand into their skin. I imagine some placements, for some brands, would be more expensive than others, and eBay can be the pricing mechanism.
The important thing to remember is that every brand, every company, every marketer needs to take a look at what is happening and understand the evolving new means to propagate any message in this emerging Turning Reality. If you don't you won't even be aware that you are being bypassed, for those who only watch traditional means won't see their own loss until it is too late.